Joint sitting of the National Assembly

With its string of achievements reeled off recently, the eighth National Assembly has a reason to celebrate its third year in office, write Deji Elumoye and James Emejo

In many ways, the eighth senate has a lot to be thankful for and of course, roll out the drums. In spite of its stormy beginning that was steeped in internal power play, and which later snowballed into executive/legislative rivalry, the legislature still went ahead to stamp its feet in the sand of time with many positives recorded against its name.

From its primary duties of lawmaking to oversight functions and its many interventions in both the politics and business of governance, this particular parliament has stood itself out very significantly.

No doubt, the journey had been tortuous and quite exhaustive in many ways especially, in view of the politics and leadership crisis which rocked the legislature in the election of its leaders and selection of its principal officers.

Arguably, one of the most disturbing occurrences, which almost put a clog in the wheels of progress for the legislature, was its recurring altercations with the executive arm of government over allegations bordering on contempt of parliament, breach of the constitution in various instances to mention a few, and even lately, contention with the judiciary over alleged undue interference in the activities of the legislature.

At different times, the parliament, through its relevant committees had in the performance of its oversight functions, invited heads of government agencies over their operations; and oftentimes, since the beginning of the current National Assembly, key government officials had declined to appear before the lawmakers, a development which the lawmakers in turn blamed President Muhammadu Buhari for not being able to call his men to order in spite of the outcry by the parliament.

Also, the December 2017 Budget presentation to the joint session of the National Assembly was almost dented by protest from a section of aggrieved lawmakers in the lower chamber, who had expressed their displeasure over the non-release of the N100 billion constituency projects by the executive.

It took the intervention, both of the Senate President Bukola Saraki and the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara to save the day as well as save the president such a huge embarrassment from a parliament dominated by members of the ruling party.

The experience and maturity of the National Assembly leadership had often rescued the situation in several instances of legislative deadlock during and outside plenary.

A recent call for the impeachment of Buhari by some lawmakers over unauthorised expenditure in the purchase of military hardware from the United States government without initial recourse to the National Assembly confirmed the extent of the turbulence the 8th parliament has endured.

Another sticky point in the executive/legislative confrontation was the lack of transparency or total denial by government over payment of fuel subsidy to oil marketers without appropriation, even though there’s evidence to that effect.

Nonetheless, there have been some laudable accomplishments to cheer about – going by the agenda the parliament set out to fulfill. Thus, a focus on the two chambers and their respective feats would help lend credence to this.

The Senate

The 8th Senate was inaugurated on June 9, 2015 with a lot of intrigues associated with the election of principal officers of the upper legislative arm of the National Assembly. At the end of the day, former two-time governor of Kwara State and a ranking Senator emerged the President of the Senate as against Senator Ahmad Lawan, the current Senate Majority Leader, who was believed to be the preferred candidate of the Presidency.

Since its inauguration over three years ago, the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly had cause to stand up to the Presidency on many occasions. This could be attributed to the no love lost between the legislature as represented by Saraki’s Senate and the Presidency as represented by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Even at this, the Senate forged on and ensured that it lived up to its constitutional expectations. So, it was not out of place, when on the third anniversary of the 8th Senate on June 9, 2018, the Senate President, who is also the Chairman of the National Assembly, Saraki reeled out the achievements recorded by Senate under his leadership in three years.

In expression of happiness, Saraki, in a statement said the Senate was able to unravel high level corruption in government. He also said the 8th Senate passed 213 Bills and cleared 138 petitions brought before it by the public within three years.

“We exposed high level corruption in the management of the North East Relief Efforts and passed the North East Commission Bill, which has now been signed into law. In three short but eventful years, we have worked assiduously and diligently to meet the demands of Nigerians and a changing economy that experienced a recession just a year after we assumed office.”

According to him, “We have passed 213 Bills, cleared 138 petitions submitted by the public. We are happy to say that this Senate is the most productive since 1999. It has surpassed the 5th Senate, which with 129 bills in four years had the highest number of bills, as against the 6th Senate with 72 bills, and 128 passed by the 7th Senate. The number of petitions we have successfully treated to the satisfaction of Nigerians, who filed them, dwarfed the eight and six treated by the sixth and seventh Senate respectively.

Saraki further posited that the Senate had worked to grow the nation’s economy by passing Bills like the Companies and Allied Matters Act, the Secured Transactions in Movable Assets Act, the Credit Bureau Reporting Act and the Warehouse Receipts Bill, Nigerian Railways Authority Bill and National Transportation Commission Bill, “which are aimed at providing significant reforms to our business environment and strengthening our lending legislative frameworks to allow SMEs to access capital.

“We are particularly glad that the impact of the Secured Transactions in Movable Assets Act and the Credit Bureau Reporting Act became apparent immediately after they were signed into law as they form the basis for which the World Bank upgraded the rating of Nigeria in its Annual Ease of Doing Business rating. We expect that when the new CAMA, which we just passed, becomes law it will yield even more significant results in helping small and medium scale entrepreneurs to access capital, grow and multiply.

“We have also passed Bills like the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit Bill, the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill, the Witness Protection Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Bill and the Federal Audit Service Commission Bill to support the fight against corruption. It should be noted that the National Assembly quickly rose to the occasion to prevent the expulsion of Nigeria from the Global community on the exchange of financial intelligence by expediting the passage of the NFIU bill.

“With the support of the Nigerian public, we were able to break the PIB jinx, by passing the Governance Component of the Petroleum Industry Bill, and now, we have successfully conducted the Public Hearing on the Administrative, Fiscal and Host Community Components of this Bill — taking it to its farthest stage since 1999.

“Also of note is our passage of the constitution amendment bills, some of which will change the landscape of governance in Nigeria. Some of the bills like the ‘Not Too Young to Run’ bill, the Financial Autonomy for Local Government Bill, Financial Autonomy for Houses of Assembly among others are aimed at improving governance and ensuring that government serves our people better,” he explained.

Saraki also highlighted some of the interventions of the Senate since June 9, 2015, stating that the impact of the work of the legislature in Nigeria’s system of governance was starting to be understood.

“The legislature as the youngest of the three arms of government still has a lot of catching up to do in ensuring that Nigerians understand its role in our democracy. This is why we have been attentive and responsive to the needs of Nigerians by intervening where it counts.

“We will like to reiterate the fact that this Senate has taken deliberate measures aimed at opening up the institution for better understanding by members of the public. These measures include providing details and breakdown of the annual budget of the National Assembly, holding of public hearing as part of the budget preparation process, the proposed Open NASS week aimed at engaging with other arms of government and civil society groups and the frequent discussions with a view to resolving issues involving labour unions, government and other stakeholders.

“We have also engaged stakeholders on the drug epidemic that is ravishing a significant demographic of our population and we are set to pass new Bills that will help to address the Mental Health aspect of drug abuse and the law enforcement component that has to do with ensuring that all agencies of the federal government are working in-sync to tackle this menace with clearly defined legal structures in place. We equally intervened in the human trafficking and illegal migration crises plaguing the youthful segment of our population.

“We have also been working to ensure that healthcare remains the right of every Nigerian and this is why with the passage of the one per cent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) to establish the Basic Healthcare Fund in the 2018 budget, primary healthcare will be within reach for all 180 million of us.

“The One Per Cent Basic Healthcare Fund is an intervention we made out of our conviction that all Nigerians, no matter their station in life, deserve access to qualitative and affordable health care. This is a move we made for the ordinary Nigerians and we believe it will help to create a more vibrant, healthy and patriotic citizenry.

“This Fund will help us eliminate the problem of maternal and infant mortality as well as create a healthy population. We will be able to ensure that all our kids get necessary immunisation that keeps various diseases away from them and ensure the mothers are well catered for during child birth”, he stated.

He said security issues remain work-in-progress and that the Senators are tired of the frequent observance of one minute silence following the killing of Nigerians in the various conflicts and criminal activities across the country. The Senate President added that the Senate was engaging with security agencies to ensure that all the necessary laws and funds needed to ensure the safety of lives and property in the country are put in place.

Saraki pledged that the National Assembly would continue to be transparent, accountable and responsive even as the nation and its political office holders prepare for the 2019 elections.

“Some might see it as a time to leave governance and focus on politics. We do not believe this. We will continue to push forward and continue to perform. This is what Nigerians, who sent us to Abuja to represent their interests expect of us: a committed, transparent, accountable and responsive government. We have shown this through our antecedents, and as we continue to serve in the next one year, we will continue to be just that.”

The House of Representatives

In the midst of both internal and external threats to the actualisation of its mandates, which is primarily to make laws and expose corruption and leakages in governance through its oversight function, it could be said that the lower chamber had made commendable achievements.

Thus, on June 7, the lower chamber adjourned plenary to among other things allow members mark the successful completion of its third legislative year.

Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon. Abdulrazaq Namdas, said the green chamber had altogether successfully passed 222 bills and referred 284 to relevant the committees for processing.

He added that over 1,473 bills were altogether introduced on the House floor within the period in review; 90 of the bills were on constitution amendment while 519 others are awaiting second reading. Namdas further disclosed that 112 bills are awaiting consideration, adding that 22 bills died naturally while 23 others were withdrawn by the leave of the House.

He said over 700 motions were sponsored by members to address various concerns across the country and boasted that, “Since the inception of the National Assembly, no Assembly has achieved this success.”

Notwithstanding the constant executive-legislative face-off, he said the Dogara-led House was able to work with the executive to lead country out of the recent recession in the period under review. Instructively, the symbolic Not-Too-Young-to-Run bill which was recently signed into law by Buhari to encourage young Nigerians into politics was a brainchild of the green chamber.

Dogara particularly took credit for the passage of the North East Development Commission (NEDC) bill recently signed by the president – a bill designed to rebuild the Northeast part of the country, which had been ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency. The commission has been accommodated in the 2018 budget.

He is also credited for the current efforts being made by the House to resuscitate the moribund Ajaokuta Steel Company in order to stimulate the economy and provide jobs for the teeming unemployed Nigerians.

A bill stopping the concession plan of the plant as well as legislation to finance the plant’s completion had been passed in the House.

Also, key sections of the Electoral Act have been amended while other components are currently undergoing legislative processes in the lower chamber.

One of the cardinal objectives of the 8th House Legislative Agenda (2015-2019) is to strengthen its processes, Rules and internal structures to support its oversight and investigative hearing activities and ensure full access to all government financial information as well as develop mechanisms to sanction those, who do not cooperate with its oversight or investigative activities or who refuse to implement legislative wishes or resolutions.

This, the lower chamber has lived up to as several investigative hearings had been conducted to check inefficiency and abuse of office by government agencies.

The recent fuel crisis, which rocked the country; the placement of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on status enquiry by the House Committee on Public Accounts; the investigation of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) over alleged breach of trust; the sectoral debate on Ajaokuta; the recent intervention in the management crisis that rocked the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS); the innumerable motions, raised on the House floor to address various happenings across the country including the summoning of service chiefs over the continued killings of Nigerians by armed herdsmen – are all part of the interventions by the lower chamber to enforce its oversight functions.

Another key aspect of the legislative agenda is the review of the National Budgetary Process, which remained one of the major challenges of the country’s democracy since 1999. The House had resolved that legislative measures will be introduced to support and implement a proper budgetary process that supports a strong and robust national economy with a view to among other things promote an inclusive budgetary process that seeks the cooperation of the Executive in institutionalising pre-budget interface and consultations.

But the House is yet to succeed in ensuring that the president submits the annual budget within the stipulated timeframe before the parliament. The 2018 budget, which ought to have been submitted in September, was turned in December, prompting anger from lawmakers, which also refused to fast-track its passage as requested by the president during the presentation.

Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of the lower House to the dismay of members of the public was its inability to override Buhari on the passage of the Nigerian Peace Corps bill into law. Buhari rejected the bill, which was passed by both chambers on the grounds of financial constraints and security consideration.

Even though lawmakers had vowed to override him and give employment to anxious youths waiting to be recruited into the Corps, the lawmakers eventually failed to bypass the president. Another failure of the 8th House was its inability to take more drastic actions over the killings in the country.

Although several resolutions had been passed on the House floor, none of them went as far as actually summoning the President, as the chief security officer, to appear before the House, even calls for the sack of service chiefs for their apparent lack of answers to the situation was never heeded.

Also worrisome, was the fact the House recently committed to boycotting plenary for three days to show solidarity with Nigerians over the continued killings in the country, a promise which was never implemented before its recess.

Yet, the House may further be called to question over the manner with which it went about its oversight function of government agencies and often times, the exclusion of the media from the exercise speaks volume.

There had been allegations that lawmakers demanded bribes during such visits, thus the need to introduce transparency in oversight of MDAs going forward.

Also, in the period under review, the House showed signs of divisiveness, when variously it played to the gallery by grandstanding and calling for the president’s impeachment without sincerity of purpose. It is often a matter of time before such aggression withers.

The recent move to change the sequence of the general election, initially gathered momentum to the excitement of the public, which saw the development as positive for the country, only for the lower House to back down midstream.

Although the House has further committed to double efforts to ensure the dividends of democracy are delivered within the remaining one year in the lifespan of the current administration, it must refocus its strategy in dealing with government agencies in order to earn its respect and deliver on its mandate.

Its summons that is largely persuasive needs to be fine-tuned to make it legally binding for invited agencies to appear and give account of their stewardship.

It must also desist from its grandstanding posture during legislative activities, because making rather empty statement that cannot be enforced could change public perception of the hallowed chamber. The House must rise above politics: party affiliation, ethnic and religious lines to be able to deliver the avowed dividends of democracy to the Nigerian people.

On several occasions, bills or motions have been either supported or rejected not on merit but on sentiments, while issues bordering on the conduct of the president are often unchallenged as a result.

Perhaps, it was the reason Dogara recently appealed to members not to hasten to reach a decision as the House must always be seen to do the right thing at all times.